Music and film fans were treated in early June to the Netflix release of Martin Scorcese's new film about Bob Dylan's 1976 tour, the Rolling Thunder Revue. The film features documentary footage of Dylan and his band in electrifying concert performances. That footage is framed by a set of interviews with both actual tour participants and fake talking heads, who comment on the events. By blurring history and fiction the commentary cleverly packages the tour as both chaotic and yet still relevant; it's subtitled "A Bob Dylan Story." Yet the clash of illusion and reality was already an essential part of the tour and contributes to its political meaning--both then, in the year of the American bicentennial celebrations, and now, in the age of Trumpism and Fox News.
The Rolling Thunder Revue had Dylan traveling across New England, playing in small cities, Plymouth to Montreal. He was joined by a Who's Who of fellow singers, including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Joni Mitchell. The band included musicians such as the violinist Scarlet Rivera and the bassist Rob Stoner, who had made Dylan's recent album "Desire" such a sonic delight. The choice of New England mill towns for the tour seems to have had a kind of spiritual-political intention. "Why would he play some place so small?" asks one of the fans in Plymouth, midway through the film. It was an encounter with a semi-rural America that was being depleted by a changing economy. The contemporary resonances with Trump's claims to speak for a "real" America are, of course, unmistakable. But the illusion of freedom presented by the tour was already shot through with nostalgia. For the context for the tour is the cultural misery of the mid-1970s, when the the late-1960s hippie dream of freedom, funny clothes, and "the road," had been brought up short by the reality of the defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, and a slowing economy. Read More